Harar is a seriously fascinating place. Far-flung on the Eastern Highlands of Ethiopia, this ancient Islamic city stands at a major crossroads between the Arabian Peninsula and the entire Horn of Africa. This is precisely what made Harar a major commercial trade route in its heyday.
Now, it feels to be the epi-centre of weird.
Amidst its world heritage walls is a startling portrait: Camels replace donkeys, Buna (coffee) houses act as opium dens, and absolutely everyone is stoned off their tits. Drug of choice? Qat. (Pronounced 'Chat')
Somewhere between Sekota and Awash, I began to realize that the casual disappearances of my Ethiopian friends were attributed to their hours-long qat-chewing sessions. They would return with glazed looks in their eyes and a sluggish attitude. At first, I figured they had just dozed off in the heat of a scorching afternoon until I continually happened upon groups of men and women stuffing their faces with leaves––water bottles and plastic bags of qat by their sides. It really sank in when my share taxi stopped at a roadside restaurant in the Afar region and I stumbled out of the car into a veritable den of debauchery with doped up couples sprawled out in the dust, bags of qat ubiquitously scattered around them.
The midnight ride to Harar foreshadowed the peculiarities I'd soon discover. Suddenly, in the black of night, from the stretches of empty highways, a fluorescent-lit sidewalk appeared and everyone enthusiastically spilled out of the van. It must have been 2 am. The commercial buzz of this pit-stop was near frenzy, as hawkers shoved bundles of bushes in shoppers faces. It looked like a midnight market for zoo feed. Everyone came back to the car with bushels to eat, including the driver, who was furiously chewing the stuff and passing it to the other guys in the front seats.
As the driver continued eating, his speed accelerated. My palms got sweaty and my heart raced at a dizzying pace. Seeing my life flash before my eyes, I imagined how many busloads of travelers might have died along these roads. I began to understand the narcotic effect of qat and the strength it seemed to give the driver; helping him make it through a sleepless night on the highway. All I needed was a dose of fear to keep me up the whole way.
Waking up in Harar was like turning the lights on in a bar. It seemed that every local had been on that night ride with me. Dishevelled men slept slumped up against walls; remnants of chewed green leaves dried in a line around their lips. Women sold vegetables in the patches of shade offered by wooden balconies, their faces marked with exhaustion.
For all Harar's world-class wonder, it was a puzzling, and at times frightening cocktail of the bizarre. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was, but there something ghostly about the people. I guess that's what a year's long drug binge would do to you.
I decided to sample a leaf of this intoxicating culprit to see what all the fuss was about. It was certainly sweet but not at all pleasant enough to down an entire bag. Regardless, it only took a few days for me to begin to stumble around town as wide-eyed as the rest of them.